John Shotter: a belated thank you

jsIt has been several months since the death of John Shotter and I thought I would reflect on his impact on me and implications for those of us in education. I’m not going to describe John’s achievements, I’ll leave that to his friend Michael Billig – click here. And I’m certainly not going to summarise his work and its impact on practice – that will have to speak for itself, at this point I can hear John reaching for Wittgenstein (probably On Certainty, p210, para 139-140).

I first met John in 2008 mid way through my doctorate. We met via a mutual friend, Patricia Shaw, in the Bunch of Grapes pub near London Bridge station. I remember being enthusiastic about my line of research on knowledge. John listened and seem to absorb and reflect my enthusiasm. Thereafter our paths crossed every few months. I last met John with his wife at his home in Cambridgeshire with some good friends sharing readings, writings and understandings of our various interests and projects.

But what was it about John that I came to value? Many people would point to his encyclopaedic knowledge of the likes of Wittgenstein and Bakhtin and his ability to pull a quote from thin air. In addition to his focused understanding on these writers and more it was also his knowledge of a wider terrain of culture and that seem to connect people together in a shared experience and understanding. And of course, there was his enthusiasm for learning and knowledge tinged with sadness of our entrenched views and the political games we play in academia.

For me there was something more important that I try to take forward in my own developing practice as an academic. He would get to a nub of something that I was struggling with, drawing a few threads together that I had not noticed. And from this (and with a pile of reading) the world become a little clearer, or usefully unclear, and a small step would have been made. His impact at the time was subtle but when I look back the effect was substantial and deep. In short, he had the knack of pointing me to new avenues at just the right time: Gilbert Ryle, Raymond Williams, Henri Bortoft to name a few.

I came to wish that I had recognised his contribution in the acknowledgements of my thesis and in some respects this posting makes up for my omission.

And here are the paragraphs I mentioned:

  1. Not only rules, but also examples are needed for establishing a practice. Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself.
  2. We do not learn the practice of making empirical judgements by learning rules: we are taught judgements and their connexion with other judgements. The totality of judgements is made plausible to us.

Wittgenstein, L. (1969), On Certainty, (Anscombe, G. and von Wright, G.,Eds.), Harper Torchbooks, New York.

Truth – the new reflexive duty that is all our responsibility

capture-final-picAs the year comes to an end I thought I would add a few lines on the one thing that has troubled me most – truth. By truth I mean dependable knowledge that enables people to form effective opinions and decisions. With the US Presidential Election and the vote of the UK to leave the EU it seems that the fragility of truth has become all too apparent to those of us who care. More worrying, those of us who care seem to be in short supply.

There is little I can do to affect global events, but at least I can look closer to home to make some sort of impact. I work with postgraduate and undergraduate students and delegates on professional development programmes. I have become intrigued as to what people count as dependable knowledge, more specifically how much critical thought is given to this.

We now have blogs (like this one), news aggregators, complexity delivered in 140 characters and so on. All of this amplified by virtual velcro, the means by which ‘news’ unknowingly sticks to people by what they ‘like’ and what ‘friends’ they have. In readymade communities anyone can say anything with the added double bonus of both instant credibility and a boost that brings forth further response; a rapid process that risks self-reinforcing groupthink.

What did we have before? Newspapers and books, both with some form of editorial process. Peer reviewed journals that sought to take a rigorous stance on what made it through. Professional and trade press again with editorial teams. None of these were perfect but all had editorial processes and people in place were invested in the long term. In other words, any claims on truth would be reconciled with the credibility they had developed and yet held hostage to future challenge. Of course we still have these sources, but like the patina of an antique they are outshone by the new.

I am not suggesting a rejection of these new sources. However, the new skill of the student, citizen, consultant, work colleague – all of us, is increasingly to establish the validity of those sources and to carefully explain them to those around us and to ourselves. In short to be a reflexive check to ensure we do not get sucked in. What questions might we ask? There are many, but I think the most important stem from: what is the network of relationships that this person is invested/nested in? People have a tendency to cite and draw comfort from like-minded individuals. What awareness do they have of this, and how overt is this? Do they make connections with people from other traditions and views? Can you draw a connection of thought back to ideas and areas that you relate with and you know to be valid?

This is not just a skill, but a set of skills. Firstly, there is the ability to work out these connections and to draw the messy map of relationships. Secondly, the knack of being able to critically connect any valid insights to one’s context and practice. And finally, and importantly, being able to stand up and to argue the case; this is important as in doing this we can shape the debate. By doing this we can be an informed consumer, contributor and curator of knowledge.

Organisation Development (OD): tales of craft, style and making do

20160711_160754A few days ago James Traeger and I were sitting in a rather lovely room overlooking the lawns at Ashridge management college. Here we signed a contract to write a book together; a moment that focuses the mind!

We are writing a book on organisation development but one that pays attention to the ‘craft’ in different ways. Having worked in and with many organisations I am intrigued as to how things actually happen. I am less interested by the grand proclamations and planned activities that may appear in newsletters, company reports and ‘town hall meetings’; but instead I am drawn to the actual conversations that happen everywhere from boardrooms, corridors, phone calls, e-mails in what is a confusing world where we can only make the next sensible step with the information we have at hand. And with the constraints and enablers that we are aware of – those that we are not aware of soon become apparent! So how does the OD practitioner move into these spaces and conversations and to act ethically in ways that are in the best interests of the people that we call the ‘the organisation’ and those affected by it? This is the substance of the book, told with tales of the craft of how people make do with what they have to create interactions and understandings that are helpful. We are interested in the full gamut ranging from set piece events with flip charts and marker pens to chance (or carefully arranged semi-chance) conversations in car park or corridor.

We are aiming this book at the curious, the practitioner (and the occasional academic) perhaps frustrated with ‘how to’ explanations. Instead we are looking to share, show and build bridges of understanding that might be useful in:

  • Making enough sense of complex situations we find ourselves in.
  • Enabling wise choices to be made.

And in doing so how move forward with those around us.

Through difference comes a deeper confidence

cropped-picture-of-dunes-2.pngThis week I was at conference in Bristol, UK on the ‘contemporary relevance of the work of Pierre Bourdieu’ where I presented my paper on the connections and opportunities between Bourdieu’s thinking and action learning. It was one of the best conferences I had been to drawing people from all over the world and importantly working with Bourdieu’s ideas in very different ways.

I have been deeply affected by his work which has influenced a number of my books, papers and thinking in general. But I have lacked confidence on two counts. Firstly, his life’s work was enormous, there are few who have a deep understanding of his work and the context from which it emerged. Secondly, appreciating the contemporary ways in which those ideas were being taken up by people at the conference. In other words, I was very aware that my interest was focused on a small area of a far wider moving project.

Over the three days it was great to see the myriad of ways that people were working with his ideas. Some I was deeply drawn to, attracted by the interaction between excellent empirical work and theory. Others like Lisa Mckenzie’s work on the working class in London made me wonder what sort of world we had created. But others took Bourdieu’s work and applied multiple correspondence analysis (MCA) and other quantitative techniques that left me cold wondering what Bourdieu would have thought. Similarly, words and phrases such as ‘technique’, ‘tool’, ‘using’, ‘framework’ were applied to some of Bourdieu’s concepts in a way that just seemed to miss the shifting, relational, emergent qualities of his ideas reminding me of his comment: ‘Everything conspires to encourage the reification of concepts, beginning with the logic of ordinary language, …’ (Bourdieu, 1973, p62). Despite these differences and affinities my thinking was being challenged.

Through these differences and talking with those people who saw his work from other angles I became more confident about my areas of interest, that of reflexivity and the ‘friction’ between his concepts of habitus and field. This was not an arrogant confidence; I knew that I had something that was worth saying but with a humility to explore other ideas and how these were being taken up.

What implications does this have more generally? It is by being with other people of differing views and exploring their ideas that we become more confident and curious about our own position and how that position might develop. But that is not what I see around me. Politicians talk of building walls (metaphorically, literally and implied in their ‘dog whistle’ speeches), or they just talk and don’t listen. Perhaps we do the same; we surround ourselves with likeness amplified by our interaction with Facebook, Twitter and the like.

Here I am suggesting a different type of deeper confidence. I am not talking about an arrogant confidence that is defensive, inward looking and is brittle to challenge. I am talking about confidence that is open to the development of thought and keen to engage others with differing and challenging views. I think Bourdieu himself would have had views on this …

Bourdieu, P. (1973). The three forms of theoretical knowledge. Social science information, 12(1), 53-80.


An antidote to bullet points

cropped-picture-of-dunes-22.pngRecently I was in the Netherlands visiting their Open University lecturing and talking with a group of PhD students.

In one conversation we discussed the question of ‘contribution’, or how could research make a difference. Suggestions were discussed that you could imagine would lead to a few bullet points. Quite understandable but not quite hitting the mark it seemed to me, particularly when we are researching day-to-day goings on in organisations. Such an approach plays into the hands of the person who sees knowledge as an abstract entity that can be applied from one context to another with assured results.

Here is a suggestion. Before we get to the bullet points the author explains their situation. This narrative contains enough of the gritty detail to enable the reader to ‘live that experience’, but not in a fictional sense, but in a way that enables them to build a ‘bridge’ between their experience and that of the writer. This does not mean that they have to agree or for that matter directly relate to the situation, but just to say ‘yes, I can see why they have done …’ This might include a few striking moments that challenged one’s thinking or assumptions or where events took a surprising turn. It might also include a few textured details of the people involved, the location or the sense of anticipation or apprehension.

By this stage we have now established a connection of common understanding. And with assertive humility we can offer some grounded suggestions. These are suggestions that the reader can now relate to and imagine how they might be useful for them, adapted to the situation that they are facing.

This way of thinking recognizes both the power of the writer/researcher and the reader, it is now more nuanced. We have moved away from knowledge as being absolute where the reader’s voice is absent. For this to work, by which I mean any test of validity (a key point in and PhD), we need to recognize the role of the reader in how this might be useful, both the story and any bullet points that might follow.

The ‘bus test’ for our academic work


Source: Wikimedia – Arriva436

Several weeks ago I was asked to review an academic paper that was to be presented at a leading management conference. I read the title and it made no sense to me whatsoever. It was only half way through the abstract that I got an inkling. Towards the end of the introduction I had got it, just. And once I had waded through the paper and read it again it said something that was interesting and relevant. The authors were playing a tightly woven game with a small group of fellow researchers interested in a focused area of organisational life using a particular methodology.  Now I appreciate we all have our shorthand, jargon and people we want to impress. That said we must be mindful of the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts –people who are struggling to make sense of their organisational lives.

In my review I made the following comment: ‘If your paper was left on a bus and picked up by a busy manager what would they make of it?’ In other words, how might it shine a light on their practice, which may at times may seem unfathomable to them.

So I propose a test, which I will call ‘the bus test’. Before we send of our papers and books off for review we should hand our efforts to someone facing the areas of research we are interested in. They should at least be able to understand the title and abstract. Better still that they can relate to what has been said. That is not to say that they should agree, but at least they should be able to form an opinion from which a conversation could occur. Only then can the authors dive into their focused arguments, literature and methods.

As an aside, much has been has been said about Open Access in academia where citizens have the right to have access to research material. To my mind this is a part of a similar debate particularly in the field of leadership and management.

Using complexity analogies as a way of exploring knowledge and practice

cropped-picture-of-dunes-22.pngI have been asked to give a presentation to a group of doctoral students in the Netherlands on how we might use complexity as a way of understanding what we are doing in organisations. I was asked to prepare an abstract which I will share:

Traditional management theories have a tendency to focus on general terms that might include ‘culture’, ‘leadership’, and ‘strategy’ etc and use these to create models and frameworks to explain the present and predict the future. In doing so there is a reification, namely the way of relating to these terms as if they were fixed entities. We can trace this back in Western thought to the work of Kant.  Here the emphasis of understanding includes a dualism between people and organisations, the collapse of contradictory but ever present tensions that people deal with and a formative process of causality that implies an understanding of the future based upon the unfolding of pre-set factors.

Considering the work of Stacey and others (Stacey et al., 2000) we can challenge this approach and their assumptions. Stacey is a management theorist who uses the sciences of complexity as an analogy to explore everyday interactions between people and how these come to develop into organising themes (for which the US pragmatist philosopher GH Mead (Mead, 1934) developed the theory of ‘the generalised other’). Here we can pay attention to the dynamics between: the interaction of people as they interpret the themes they notice and experience; and, how these themes themselves come to be developed from everyday interactions of people. From the interweaving of novel and established patterns transformation is possible in a process that is emergent. Empirically the approach draws on people’s routine work collected in a series of narratives often spanning several years and critically engaged within a learning set alongside organisational literature (Warwick and Board, 2013).  This has been the approach of the Complexity Management Centre based at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, in their long running doctoral programme.  This way of studying organisations and our presence as part of them enables a richer understanding of the dynamics of reified terms, for example what we might call ‘culture’.

They have termed this approach complex responsive processes of relating (Stacey et al., 2000) as a way to draw attention to the temporal nature of the processes of which we are all participant and from which no one is separate. Rather than Kant, it is influenced by Hegel’s (and those who draw on his work) notion of process and how, in our ‘rubbing along’ with each other, novelty emerges. Issues of power and paradox are explored. Power in the sense of an interconnected mesh or figurations (Elias, 1978) of which we are all part of in known and unknown ways. And paradox to give voice to ever present contradictions faced in organisations for which reconciliation is not possible. These are factors that people face daily as they go about making decisions, trying to sense plausible next steps in conditions of increased uncertainty.

For the doctoral student or academic this forms a contribution to knowledge and practice. With respect to knowledge first-hand accounts that address issues of power and how people reflexively respond are rare particularly amongst senior groups  (Warwick and Board, 2012). When it comes to practice, the individual becomes more reflexive (Cunliffe, 2009) understanding their own place in the mêlée in which they are a part. Of particular note are the power relations within ones habitus (Bourdieu, 1990) that become available for noticing thus enabling more thoughtful choices to be made as part of the paradoxes that are present in everyday decision making.

The literature I have drawn on:

Bourdieu P (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Cunliffe AL (2009) The Philosopher Leader: On Relationalism, Ethics and Reflexivity–A Critical Perspective to Teaching Leadership. Management Learning, 40(1), 87–101,

Elias N (1978) What is Sociology? New York: Columbia University Press.

Mead GH (1934) Mind, Self, & Society. Chicago: Chicago University University.

Stacey R, Griffin D and Shaw P (2000) Complexity and Management – Fad or Radical Challenge to Systems Thinking? Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Warwick R and Board D (2012) Reflexivity as methodology : an approach to the necessarily political work of senior groups. Educational Action Research, 20(1), 37–41.

Warwick R and Board D (2013) The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge: A Reflexive Inquiry Into Research and Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.